PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday October 9th, 2014, 7:54pm

Striking Waukegan Teachers, School Board Remain At Odds Over Contract (VIDEO)

Progress Illinois provides coverage of the teachers strike in Waukegan, which entered its sixth day on Thursday. 

Thursday marked the sixth day of the Waukegan teachers strike.

Striking teachers and their supporters were on the picket lines today at local schools and in front of the Lincoln Center for Educational Services, the administrative building for Waukegan Community School District 60.

Classes have been canceled for 17,000 students at the district's 23 school buildings since last Thursday as a result of the work stoppage. School district and union representatives failed to reach a contract agreement last night and negotiations continued Thursday. 

The teachers' contract expired on June 30. They have since been working under the language of their old contract. Contract talks have been underway for months.

Teachers are seeking a salary increase that would bring their pay in line with those of educators in neighboring districts as well as improved health care benefits. 

The union's three-year contract proposal includes a 9 percent bump in teacher pay for the upcoming academic year and a 7 percent salary increase each of the two succeeding years.

"We don't expect to get 9 percent ... but it's a starting point in negotiations," said Nate Weber, a history teacher at Waukegan High School's Washington Campus. Weber is also with the Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504.

The school board has proposed a two-year contract with salary increases of up to 1.63 percent.

Ken Wolin, a counselor at Waukegan High School's Washington Campus, said the district can afford to provide the 9 percent and 7 percent pay increases. He and other teachers say the school district currently has a $37 million surplus, up from a $2.7 million deficit four years ago.

But the school board maintains that the union's proposal would financially hurt the district.

"That’s what’s at stake here – the financial solvency of the Waukegan school system,” the Waukegan District 60 board said in a statement last Friday. “While the union has spent much time talking about a surplus, the 9 percent salary increase the teachers propose this coming year and the 7 percent increases they have asked for next year and the following year would bankrupt the district.”

In an interview today with Progress Illinois, Waukegan Public Schools Parental and Public Information Officer Nicholas Alajakis said the district has $26 million in reserves. That working cash fund is used in part to pay bills while the district awaits payments from the state, he explained.

"The Illinois State Board of Education recommends a pretty healthy working cash fund in order to assist the district in terms of financial needs," he said, adding that the union's salary demands would "quickly wipe out those reserves and bankrupt the district."

Alajakis pointed out that "there was a time when the district did not have those reserves" and the board does not want to return to that situation.

"The board wants to give the teachers a fair wage and a fair contract," he stressed. "It's a matter of determining what is fair and when they can reach that level."

Wolin, however, took issue with the district's claim that the union's proposal would bankrupt the district. He said the district spends about 15 percent of its budget on administrative costs, when it should really be spending "approximately 5.2 percent on district administration." The district's overall annual budget, he said, is about $180 million to $190 million. If the district were to scale back administrative costs by 10 percent, it would save roughly $18 million a year, he explained.

"They would have more than enough to take care of us. It wouldn't even be a question," he said. "But they refuse to do that ... They really need to get real with what teachers are paid. We've given up so much that we just can't afford to give anymore."

Teachers, for example, took a pay freeze in 2010 because of the district's deficit at the time, Weber said.

"The administrators have gotten raises, and they've hired more and more people, and essentially we're just wondering when we're going to get our compensation for everything that's gone on," Weber said.

Alajakis said non-union district employees, including administrators, have not received a pay increase so far this year.

Weber, meanwhile, said the district's salaries for teachers are mostly to blame for its "ridiculous" teacher turnover rate.

"We lose 15 percent of our teachers every year, because if you go anywhere else in Lake County you get 10 percent more" in pay, he stressed.

A first year teacher in Waukegan District 60 makes an annual salary of about $36,000, Weber said.

"At Round Lake they'd be making closer to $40,000, and I know in Chicago Public Schools to keep their people they start at nearly $50,000," he explained.

Alajakis said teachers leave the district for a number of reasons, adding that many other school systems "also have teachers come and go quite a bit."

"I don't know if it's strictly salary," he said.

The average salary for teachers in the district is $56,000, Alajakis said. At the top of the scale, some teachers earn an annual salary between $100,000 to $102,000. More than 115 teachers have a base salary of $90,000 or more a year, he added.

"I think the board would readily admit that teachers at the lower end of the salary structure are underpaid whereas at the higher end, the teachers are much better compensated," Alajakis said. "It's part of its proposal to fix the salary schedule."

He said the board's proposal seeks to "compensate those teachers in the beginning or middle of their careers to try to get their salaries more competitive" with other nearby districts.

The school board also wants to increase the teachers' health care contributions. The district currently covers 100 percent of single premium health care costs for teachers. It wants single teachers to start paying $600 a year, or $50 a month, for health care coverage. Alajakis said that is a "modest" increase that is "not out of line with what other districts are doing." Most school districts do not cover 100 percent of single premium health care costs, he noted.

Although the district's proposal does include teacher salary bumps, the increased health care contributions essentially mean teachers "would actually be taking a pay cut," Weber stressed.

Here's more from Weber, a Waukegan District 60 parent and scenes from the strike:

While teachers have been on strike, the district has put their current health care coverage on hold.

"That's absurd," Wolin stressed. "In the meantime, you better just not get sick, because you'll be writing out big checks. One of our teachers in this building has renal kidney failure, and they just pulled his insurance out from underneath him. ... It's just not a good situation whatsoever."

The school district issued this official statement earlier today:

Negotiations are currently taking place and we are hopeful a fair resolution will be reached so our students can go back to school. In the meantime, it is true that the teachers will not receive pay for the days they are out of work – which they would have if they continued to be in the classroom while we negotiated.  And they will need to make alternative arrangements for healthcare coverage whether through COBRA or another source.

Weber said a colleague of his needs a liver transparent and found an organ donor yesterday.

"He's due to get a liver transplant that will save his life in November," but he is unsure how he will pay for the procedure, Weber said. "We have people who need prescriptions filled. People are really worried about that. We do have certain provisions where you can retroactively claim things through COBRA insurance, but people are really scrambling to figure out how to make that work."

Thomas Allen, a Greenwood Elementary School physical education teacher who is battling cancer, is concerned about how he will pay for his medical needs during the strike.

“Next week, I have what could be my final chemotherapy treatment, which out-of-pocket will cost $36,000," Allen said in a statement provided by the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "The doctors want to perform a CT Scan to see if there is still a trace of the disease in my system – at a cost of about $15,000. You can’t put a price on health, but $50,000 is a tremendous financial burden. “

Later on Thursday, the school board posted an update about the contract talks on its website. The statement read in part: 

Regarding the issues of salary and healthcare benefits, the Board has increased its initial proposed salary increase to above the projected cost of living increases for the next two years.  It has also reduced the share of healthcare premiums that it is asking Teachers to pay.  At the same time, despite their claims to be offering a “starting point,” the Union has been unwilling to decrease its proposed nine percent salary increase or to compromise on its demands for fully paid premiums.  The Board is hopeful that by showing a willingness to compromise that the Union will reduce its financial requests which could bankrupt the District in two years. 

As part of salary negotiations, the Union has also demanded that taxpayers shoulder the expense of a full-time Union President position, at a salary and benefits cost of nearly $90,000.  This position would have no classroom responsibilities – the President would not teach a single period of class – and add no value for students.  Our stance is that Union dues should pay for a Union position which provides no educational value to our students. 

Likewise, the Union is also opposed to Teachers substituting for other Teachers during absences.  The Union proposes to either leave students  unsupervised or under administration care even though Teachers would be paid to substitute.  The Board is bargaining for substitutions believing the safety of our students is at stake. 

The Union also remains opposed to Board requests that we believe would unquestionably benefit our students. The Union is unwilling to extend the school day, even in the elementary school where we have one of, if not the shortest, school days in the county. They object to additional opportunities to connect with parents while the Board argues that a stronger parent/teacher connection can only help our students to succeed. 

The Board continues to submit proposals that maintain or enhance the educational quality of our schools for students.  We are committed to finding a fair resolution.  The Board hopes the Union will begin to compromise and show some flexibility and interest in those open proposals that address the need for school improvement.

In response to the board's comments, Waukegan Teachers’ Council President Kathy Schwarz issued this statement about Thursday's negotiations and the "misinformation" provided by the district:

From day one, the Union has followed every rule in the book to hammer out a deal with the District that is fair to teachers, students, and the community. At noon today, the District submitted its latest proposal to the Union and before we had time to respond with a counter offer, the District posts on its website that we aren’t willing to make compromises and made claims about the talks that just simply are not true. This is disingenuous and shocking because up until that point, we had been making progress. This is like handing a student a copy of Moby Dick at lunch and expecting her to turn in a book report by the afternoon bell. We would never do anything like that to our students, and we expect that same kind of respect from the people who run this District.

We told District representatives we expect a full retraction and apology. They are not willing to do either because it would be a setback to their campaign of misinformation. What the district did was not only dishonest – it’s illegal. We have agreed to a number of proposals to date and we’re willing to make more compromises to get students back in school, but we cannot be expected to bargain under these conditions.

Dana Young, a district bus driver who has also been out of work during the strike, stood in solidarity with the picketing teachers outside of the Lincoln Center. 

"As long they're not working, guess what? I'm not working either," she said.

Young urged the board to accept the union's proposed pay increase for teachers.

"We all have to make a living, and 1 percent is not enough for nobody to make a living off of," she added. "They deserve it. They really do ... Let's end this strike. I'm ready to go back to work, and the teachers are ready to teach, and the students are ready to learn."

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